If there was only one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one single skill I could impart to you, one useful tip that would help build your knowledge as a Christian ambassador and help you cultivate a sensible faith, what would it be?
Here's what I came up with: Never read a Bible verse. That's right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph-at least. Here's why.
On the radio I use this simple rule to help me answer the majority of Bible questions I'm asked, even when I'm not familiar with the verse. I don't read the verse, I read the paragraph. The paragraph provides me with the context and that helps me understand what's going on.
This works because of a basic rule of all communication: Meaning always flows from the top down, from the larger units to the smaller units. The key to the meaning of any verse comes from the paragraph, not just from the individual words.
It's an amazingly effective technique you can use, too. First, get the big picture. Look at the broad context of the book. What type of writing is it-history, poetry, proverb?
Next, stand back from the verse and look for breaks in the passage that identify major units of thought. Ask, "What in this paragraph or group of paragraphs gives any clue to the meaning of the verse? In general, what idea is being developed?"
With the larger context now in view, you can narrow your focus and speculate on the meaning of the verse itself. Sum it up in your own words. Finally-and this is critical-see if your paraphrase makes sense when inserted in the passage.
Let me give you a quick example of how effective this paraphrase principle can be. It's not uncommon for worship leaders to quote Jesus in John 12:32: "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself." We "lift up" the Lord when we exalt Him and declare His glory "drawing" to Christ those who are listening.
When we apply our paraphrase test by adding the very next verse, the results look like this: "'And I, if I be exalted before the people, will draw all men to Myself.' But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die." (John 12:32-33).
Oops. Praising Jesus will kill Him? I don't think so. This verse is not about praise at all. In this instance, being "lifted up" clearly means raised in the air in crucifixion.
Understanding this phrase in context sheds light on another familiar passage, John 3:14-15: "And as Moses lifted up [raised in the air] the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up [raised in the air] that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life."
Our paraphrase looks like this: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be crucified that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life." This makes perfect sense. Jesus had to be crucified before salvation could be offered, an appropriate lead-in to the verse that comes next, the most famous salvation verse in the world: John 3:16.
A reflection on a Bible passage from a sermon or a devotional may be edifying, encouraging, and uplifting. But if it is not the message of the text, it lacks biblical authority even when the quote comes right out of the Word of God.
If you will begin to do these two things-read the context carefully and apply the paraphrase principle-you will begin to understand the Bible as God intended. Remember, meaning always flows from the top down, from the larger units to the smaller units. Without the bigger picture you'll be lost.
Only when you are properly informed by God's Word the way it is written-in its context-can you be transformed by it. Every piece becomes powerful when it's working together with the whole.
For more detail on how to study the Bible, I recommend "How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth" by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.